Look Forward (Luke 3:7-18)

John the Baptist, good old bug-eating and camel’s-hair-wearing John the Baptist, gets in the face of his congregation, calling them, “A brood of vipers.”  You probably wouldn’t be too thrilled if your pastor did that, would you?  Now, what could have gotten him so riled up?

John was angry because he saw that his people were relying on their national identity as a get-into-God’s-good-graces card. Instead of repentance, the people were expecting special favor for being “children of Abraham.”  It’s as if someone today thought that being a citizen of the United States got them special pure and moral status in the world.  As if being an American was such a worthy state God would bestow blessings without a second thought.  This kind of nativism made John very angry.  In response, the crowds around him wanted to know what they should do.  In a word, John’s answer was, “Share.”  Share everything you have that’s extra, he said.  Don’t take more than you need.  Share with everybody.

Of course, over the centuries, waves of immigrants have come to this country eventually enriching our world.  And, in all that time, we have not always been welcoming.  We have made those who were here before us feel like aliens on their own land; we have vilified nationalities–the Irish, the Italians, the Polish; and, we have brought whole peoples here against their will.  It seems we have not assimilated as well as we thought because there is today so much acrimony and cruelty and disregard for people who are different, people who wear head scarves and turbans, and all those wo do not appear “white.”  Most of those who have come here of their own volition came because our country means something good and safe and represents a home where their children can learn and grow.  Why did your forebears come to America?  What does it mean to call oneself an American?  How do we respond to John’s call to share?

Shadow Rock UCC in Phoenix, Arizona is establishing something they are calling “Hope Station Nogales” in Sonora, Mexico.  It will be a ministry of hospitality and justice created for those in this country we call “Dreamers.”  Built as a place for healing for these people who came to the US as children and have spent most of their lives in our country and may now be deported.  It will be for those individuals who have family here, who have an attorney, who are not criminals, and who need a place to be among people who care for them and where they will find shelter and safe lodging and assistance.  “The core of the Gospel is new life,” said the Reverend Bill Lyons, Southwest Conference minister.  “Hope Station gives deportees a chance at new life near the border.”  If you want to find out more about Shadow Rock and the Sanctuary Movement in Phoenix, go to:  shadowrockucc.org.

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Christmas Fund for Veterans of the Cross

For 117 years, the Christmas Fund for the Veterans of the Cross and the Emergency Fund has been a tangible expression of God’s love and light in the world.  One of the five Special Mission Offerings of the United Church of Christ, the Christmas Fund provides UCC congregations and members an opportunity to reach out in kindheartedness to those pastors who have faithfully shepherded our Church and who now find themselves facing unexpected financial needs.  Your contributions will be collected Sunday, December 23.  Please donate as your heart leads you.

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Christmas Contata to be presented Sunday, December 16

Everyone is invited to join us on Sunday, December 16, at 10:30 a.m., when the choir of St. John’s UCC presents the cantata, “The Glory of Christmas”, composed by Lloyd Larson.  Dr. Crystal Sellers-Battle is the director for this presentation.

Below is a description of the cantata from composer Lloyd Larson:

“In a panoramic view of Christmas we see the majesty, the color, the sounds, and the solemnity of this glorious season.  We witness the anguish of God’s chosen people as it gives way to joy in the fulfillment of an eternal promise–that God would send a Messiah to save them.  The entire spectrum of God’s love and grace is on full display in the story of Christmas.

“But the message of Christmas is not solely for a people who lived long ago.  It is a message that our world needs to hear today.  It is for young and old alike, for people of every tribe and nation regardless of one’s station in life.  The Christmas story is filled with hope, promise, wonder, majesty, and mystery.  It is a perpetual reminder that in the darkest moments of life, the brilliance of the eternal Light of Christ has entered our world to guide us on the journey of life and faith.

“So, sing the songs of Christmas!  Celebrate its message and embrace this gracious gift from God:  Jesus becoming human and living among us for a while so that we might live eternally with our Creator.  This is the glory of Christmas!”

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Kindness and Beauty

During the frenzied pace of the Christmas season, we tend to lose sight of the message and promise that Christmas heralds. So often, we are caught up in getting read for this’s and last-minute that’s. We rush here.  We push there and practically run over people seeking that special gift which we really cannot afford.

Could all this hurrying and scurrying be Satan’s vengeance against God, or is his revenge against the Incarnation–the birth of the Son of God?  Satan blinds us all with the glitter and gloss, sounds of bells tinkling and cash registers jingling.  We have lost sight of the meaning of Christmas–the message of peace among all men and women, the promise of joy to every one of good will.

Christmas’ true splendor is found more often in simplicity–simplicity rooted in awareness and listening, for as we listen more to the world around us, we become increasingly aware of the troubles and pain, the anger and strain that others suffer.  It is the message and promise of Christmas which can bring hope to the little, the lost and the least; to the bruised, the battered, and the broken.

One of the greatest gifts we can bring to the world–bring to each man, woman, or child we meet this Christmas season–is to “practice random acts of kindness and senseless acts of beauty.”

This Christmas season, give a gift that will last, a gift that will endure long after you are gone.  “Practice random acts of kindness and senseless acts of beauty.”

Go ahead–try it!  It will shock you only a bit.  I am sure it will astound others, too, and I am certain it will startle the world around you.  Go ahead, practice kindness anyway.  The world could use a jolt such as this!

May bringing random acts of kindness and finding ways to help others see beauty be your mantra this coming year.  May God who began our Christmas giving with the priceless gift of the Son bless your holiday season and the coming year.

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A Christmas Version of I Corinthians 13

If I decorate my house perfectly with plaid bows, strands of twinkling lights, and shiny balls, but do not show love to my family, I am just another decorator.

If I slave away in the kitchen baking dozens of Christmas cookies, preparing gourmet meals, and arranging a beautifully adorned table at mealtime but do not show love to my family, I am just another cook.

If I work at the soup kitchen, carol in the nursing home, and give all that I have to charity but do not show love to my family, it profits me nothing.

If I trim the spruce with shimmering angels and crocheted snowflakes, attend a myriad of holiday parties, and sing in the choir’s cantata but do not focus on those I love the most, I have missed the point.

In other words…

Love stops the cooking to hug a child; love sets aside the decorating to kiss the spouse; love is kind though harried and tired; love does not envy another’s home that has coordinated Christmas china and table linens; love does not yell at the kids to get out of the way but is thankful they are there to be in the way; love does not give only to those who are able to give in return but rejoices in giving to those who cannot; love bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things; love never fails.  Video games will break, pearl necklaces will be lost, golf clubs will rust, but the gift of love will endure.

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Make Ready Luke 3:1-6

It is a troubling moment in the history of Israel when John the Baptist appears in Luke’s Gospel.  It is the fifteenth month of the Roman emperor Tiberius, and Pontius Pilate is governor.  Herod along with his family, political sycophants and bullies run Jerusalem and the countryside.  They do this with the support and backing of the full might of the Roman Empire.  John calls across the centuries from his anxious and troubled world.  He calls to us urging preparation because something is coming, he says.  Make everything ready he tells us, and let no mountains or crooked paths stand in the way.  Make smooth the roads that will bear the good news.

There are all kinds of ways to make roads smooth aren’t there?  You can clear them of debris, pave them, or get out the heavy equipment and begin digging through the mountain.  How does the church of the twenty-first century smooth out the roads to make way for the good news of the birth of Jesus?  Sometimes the good news we tell is born in the good deeds we do, and even in the physical roads we clear.

Most of the roads in Puerto Rico were wiped out in the category 5 Hurricane Maria, whose sustained winds of 155 mph and rain pounded the island dealing the worst natural disaster in the island’s history.  A history that includes 120 years as part of the United States, becoming a territory in 1898, a Commonwealth in 1952 and, in 1917, its inhabitants becoming citizens of the U.S. This island off the coast of Florida has a population of almost 3.5 million people (roughly the same as Connecticut).  Since Hurricane Maria, much of  the island has been cleared and power restored.  The Disaster Ministries of the United Church of Christ has been on the ground since just after the storm and has remained long after the big equipment and military vessels left.  As of the summer of 2018 there was much left to do.  While the island’s beautiful tourist spots were open and welcoming, people in the rural and remote parts  of the island still needed assistance.  UCC Disaster Ministries have stuck with those people by organizing volunteer teams.  Teams from churches across the country have been showing up to help with repairs and through donations from congregations and individuals have been able to smooth the roads and make everything ready so that people of Puerto Rico know they are not forgotten.

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Sign of Things to Come (First Night of Hanukkah) Luke 21:25-36

Portents of the end of everything doesn’t sound much like a Christmas story, does it?  This year the lectionary starts Advent off with a bang by not so much predicting an apocalypse but making sure we understand what the signs of its appearance will be.  Luke’s Gospel tells us that the skies will burst and the countries of the world, all the nations, will be in anguish.  People will be anxious and despairing.  Everything will be shaken to its core.  The next sign, the one that would be hard to miss, according to Luke’s Gospel and the book of Daniel, will be Jesus riding on a cloud and shining with all his glory.  You would especially pay attention if you saw this because, according to this Gospel, it would signal the entrance of a new world.

In Jesus’ day, living in his world meant being part of the Roman Empire; an empire with extreme income inequality, and oppressive forces pushing down both on the poor and the foreign-born.  The new world this passage envisions, is one where the poor will not be hungry, equality and compassion will rule and everything hopeful will be revealed in every corner of every street everywhere.  Another way of imaging this can be stated this beautiful way:  “Another world is not only possible, she is on her way.  On a quiet day, I can hear her breathing.”  (Arundhati Roy)

The apocalypse, then, signals not only an end but also a beginning.  According to the book of Revelation it will herald a time when the world will change dramatically…for the good, for the just, for the end of sorrow, for the defeat of greed and the end to all those things that keep people from seeing each other as they are.  The new world will truly be a Just World for All!

The birth we anticipate, the baby in the manger, is a glimpse of that new world…the hope of all.  It is the great purpose of the church to be a place where we can hear the breathing of that new world.  The world outside our congregations might feel hopeless.  It may feel like evil powers are in control disregarding human beings, creating an order that feeds on greed and corruption and the extremes of inequality.  But the church as the body of Christ houses hope itself.  It’s here, where we worship, that love is made visible, especially those three loves that the UCC holds dear:  Love of Neighbor, Love of Children, Love of Creation. This Advent be mindful of how making love visible recharges our communities with possibility and infuses our world with resilience in times of trouble.  This is the great work of the church–to make Christ visible, always.

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Church World Service Tool Project

Our special offering through November 25 was the Church World Service tool campaign.  Just as we  have offered CWS blankets as a special offering, we have an opportunity to join in this worthwhile project by providing tools for building construction and maintenance to our friends in Haiti and other devastated and underdeveloped countries.  Help us help even more families through your generosity to this project.

There remains time to contribute to the Tools project, and you may do so through December 30, 2018.  Please designate the gift on your offering envelope or pick up a green memorial/tools project sheet from the hutch in the sanctuary, fill in the donation amount, and place it in the offering plate.

To date, $505.18 has been given through the Sunday School birthday money account, the tool boxes and donations.  Donations by the congregation total approximately $354.00.  Adding the above two figures gives us a grand total of $859.18.

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This Week at St. John’s UCC

Centering Words for December 16:  God of  life and love, whose good news often comes in strange packages, open our eyes and ears to see and hear your  message.  Open our hearts to embrace one anther in our caring.  Help us to share generously and to receive graciously the gifts we have received from your hand.  Guide us to honest, peaceful, joyous relationships, that your will may be done among us.  Amen.

Sunday, December 16–Worship service with the cantata, “The Glory of Christmas”, presented by St. John’s choir.  Please join us for this third Sunday in Advent which is Joy.

Following the service a luncheon will take place in Oppermann Hall. The Bluffton University students who have honored us by singing in our choir will be our special guests.  All are welcome to attend.

Tuesday, December 18–Ladies meet at LuLu’s, 9 am.; TOPS, 6 p.m.

Wednesday, December 19–Men meet at Arby’s, 8:30 a.m.; NO choir practice; Excellence in Ministry in the parlor from 10 a.m. to 12:30 p.m.

Thursday, December 20–St. John’s is responsible for preparing the community meal at the Senior Center, 6 p.m.

Coming Events:

Monday, December 24–Christmas Eve Service, 4 p.m.

 

 

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Our Daily Bread Soup Kitchen

If you would like to volunteer for helping serve at Our Daily Bread soup kitchen in Lima on Tuesday, November 27 ,  please sign up on the bulletin board in the sanctuary.  Helpers are always welcome.

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